John’s Speech on the Mediterranean Migrant Crisis

I join other members in congratulating Alex Rowley on securing a debate on this hugely important issue. I also thank Amnesty and Save the Children for their briefings, and I declare my membership of both.

Amnesty talks about thousands of people fleeing from conflict, persecution and violence, and trying to reach safety. The conflict has been fuelled by the ready availability of armaments, many of which have been designed and manufactured in and sold from Scotland, so we are under an obligation.

People are fleeing persecution. The west’s attitude to the Arab spring sent a very confusing message. There was initial support but then an indication that we are not that bothered about democracy but about who is in charge and access to resources. That has resulted in a violent and brutal backlash, much of which passes without comment.

Many people are leaving Libya, which is in a state of anarchy. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice is against all travel to Libya. Indeed, it urges British nationals to leave immediately. However, the Government is also urging other people to stay there, despite the shortage of medical supplies, water and food. The situation is similar in Tunisia and Egypt, and there is lengthy advice about travel to those areas.

We know that the Mediterranean route is the most dangerous and lethal in the world. However, for those who are desperate enough to attempt it, it is clearly better than the alternative, whether that is Syria, Eritrea or, as is increasingly likely, west Africa, where conflict is rife.

It is entirely wrong to lay the responsibility entirely at the door of Italy. As the motion states, the Italian ambassador to the UK spoke of a

“common interest” that should be“managed at a common level”.

That is entirely right. The decision to end operation mare nostrum, Italy’s search and rescue operation, was taken in agreement with the EU, and the situation therefore demands an EU response.

Common humanity has been mentioned a number of times. We know that operation mare nostrum was replaced by operation Triton, which involves patrolling borders in smaller craft, nearer to the shore and further from the north African coast—previously, the patrols went 95 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. Alex Rowley noted that technology allows us to be fully aware of the tragedy that is occurring. We are increasingly reliant on coastguards and on the humanity of people on commercial ships. I found out, while looking into this matter, that all shipmasters are bound by an obligation that is codified in the international law of the sea, to render assistance to those who are in distress at sea, regardless of their nationality, status or the circumstances in which they are found. That is a sound foundation for any operation that the EU might mount. It is important to praise the Italian coastguards and the armed forces of Malta.

Many members here will have signed Stewart Maxwell’s fine motion on Nepal, which talks about the contribution of six firefighters from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, who are working with colleagues from across the United Kingdom to provide support that will include medical assistance and search and rescue missions. That is proactive humanitarian support, and it is right that we applaud it.

There was a news report yesterday about dozens of people drowning off the coast of Italy. Some members will have seen the footage that showed an overladen craft, terror on everyone’s faces and a bewildered toddler girl, sitting in the middle and looking to adults for support. These people are victims; they are not the accused. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that Europe must step up the capacity to save lives.

Triton is a mythical Greek god. In Virgil’s “Aeneid”, we are told that Triton killed Misenus by drowning him.

Alex Rowley talked about the need for this Parliament to speak out, and I think that that is what we are doing. Next week, the EU presents its operational plan. We are not only calling for an expansion of the search and rescue operation; we are hoping for action to address the reasons why thousands of people flee conflict, persecution and violence to reach safety in the first place.”


Motion debated as below:

That the Parliament expresses its shock at the recent loss of life in the Mediterranean sea where almost 400 migrants attempting to reach the EU are believed to have died in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya; supports the comments of human rights groups across Europe that have condemned the scrapping of rescue operations in the Mediterranean, which it believes is endangering the lives of thousands of desperate migrants making perilous journeys across the sea; acknowledges the comments of the human rights group, Amnesty International, which stated that “European governments’ on-going negligence towards the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean has contributed to a more than 50-fold increase in migrant and refugee deaths since the beginning of 2015”; believes that the decision of the EU to stop funding Italy’s Mare Nostrum rescue mission last year in favour of the surveillance patrols currently being carried out by its border agency, Frontex, is a clear example of its dereliction of duty with regard to this matter; notes the evidence given to the European and External Relations Committee by Pasquale Terracciano, the Italian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, who stated “We are pressing to persuade the European Union that there is an external border that is of common interest and should be managed at a common level, we are pressing other partners to make it a European priority and all political pressure is welcome to create awareness of the scale of the phenomenon”, and believes that it is the duty of all EU nations to work together to tackle this humanitarian crisis, the scale of which it considers is causing widespread concern and disbelief in the Cowdenbeath constituency and in communities across Scotland.